I’m home, out of the hospital, and ready to get better. I have to get better. If I don’t all of the plans for my life and our marriage will go out the window.
I’m supposed to get used to the drugs and start feeling less sleepy. Things are supposed to get better. But I remember having cancer, how nothing was ever the same again. I had stared death in the face, lost my hair and a third of my body weight. Then I’d prepared to die bravely.
But now I had no idea of how to coexist with the drugs that suppressed not only my epilepsy, but also my awareness and my emotional affect. I had no idea of how to live with impairment.
The green couch, though splattered with stains from feeding babies, served as a good place to rest while I stared out into space. My two-year-old son and infant daughter hovered in the background, probably making a mess. I’d just called my friend to switch on-call shifts for the last requirement of my CPE, chaplain-training class. In a little while my wife would be home and I would go down for a four or five hour afternoon nap. In one day I’d gone from being a highly autonomous individual with serious responsibilities to being a man who couldn’t drive, couldn’t think straight and couldn’t be trusted to watch his children for more than an hour or two.
My circumstances changed in an instant, but my plans, my identity and my values changed at glacial speed. Throughout CPE training I’d seen myself as one of the smartest and best educated of the students. I’d been selected from over more than twenty people for the single spot in the residency program. My strengths were an ability to listen and “put the dots together.” My classmates described my ability to “put the dots together” as my propensity to hear about an experience ten or fifteen years ago and connect it to something one of my classmates or patients was doing or saying in the present day. I could also write very detailed, in-depth papers about my conversations with patients. My weakness lay in being emotive; even before the drugs I had trouble sharing the emotions of grief or pain with my patients, their families or my fellow students.
It was very important to me to be perceived as being one of the smartest and best educated. I did not want to re-experience the childhood taunts I had suffered as I struggled to overcome dyslexia. In adulthood I wanted to find a profession where my skills and intellect were valued. I’d already been a construction worker, a mailman, a warehouse worker and a teacher. I’d gone to seminary and finished with good grades and good recommendations because I was sure that God loved me and would find a place for me to love Him, serve Him, and maybe even let me take home a paycheck. The chaplaincy seemed like a good fit.
Now, sitting on the green couch in my living room, feeling numb and dumb and tired, I had no idea of how I could continue.
I still struggle to believe it, even now, but much of my suffering came from illusions and deceptions that I’d constructed about myself. I’d struggled with learning how to read and get through school, so it became very important for me to think of myself as smart and have others perceive me as smart. I’d struggled to find a place in the adult world, so it became very important to think of myself as very qualified as a chaplain or minister, and to provide valuable help to others.
I’d suffered pain, disappointment and frustration. I had to believe that God would use me to alleviate those conditions in others. We always try to give away to others what we want the most for ourselves; it is to us our most precious gift.
What I didn’t know then, and continue to learn now, is that my picture of myself as a smart, super-qualified, valuable helper was going to have to die so that God could rebuild me into His humble servant.
The day after my first two seizures I was in the hospital so doped up that I looked like the Star Trek character, Data. My flat affect was a side effect from large doses of antiepileptic drugs. But it wasn’t just my face; my brain was weird. The drugs fought with the scar tissue in my head that wanted to cause more seizures and, although seizures are now rare, my brain has never been the same.
My life as a chaplain, as an ordained minister, as someone who could go on international mission trips was over. I just didn’t know it yet. Considering how doped up I was, I’m not even sure that had I known I would have cared.
One of my chaplain training instructors told us on Day One of our training there were only four things that could happen when a patient went into the hospital:
The patient would get better.
The patient would stay the same.
The patient would get worse.
The patient would die.
He was trying to teach us that death was normal. It didn’t take me long as a hospital chaplain to understand that death was also common. So was staying the same and getting worse.
On that Day One after my seizures I had the vague assumption that things would return to the way they had been before the seizure. I didn’t understand that things were changed forever. Much like an amputee who understood that his or her life was different, I knew something had changed. But like an amputee who thought a prosthesis would return 99% of their ability, I thought the anti-epileptic drugs were going to let me go right back to work as a chaplain. But a prosthesis is not a real leg, and a drugged brain is not a normal brain.
Years later, I tried to explain to a counselor that the drugs made me feel and act differently than the “real me.” My statement was irrelevant. The “real me” no longer existed. I will need these drugs for the rest of my life. The person they make me is the person I am.
When I was sixteen I worried about the tumor, the surgery, and the radiation causing brain damage. The damage didn’t seem to appear significant at that time but it caught up with me later, in my early thirties. I was very fortunate to have more than fifteen years of Christian experience and community before the first seizure. In my mind, I went to seminary to lead a church or serve as chaplain. In God’s mind I went so I could learn to be a Christian before my mind didn’t work quite right, before the drugs pulled me into a perennial slumber.
These are the things that I learned on Day One:
Don’t drive for six months.
Don’t swim for six months.
Don’t walk alone for six months.
Don’t be alone taking care of your children for six months.
This is what I learned since:
Trust in the Lord.
He is with me even when my mind is too foggy to see the iceberg in front of my Titanic.
God’s love is not based on what I could do before or on what I can’t do now.
During my time as a chaplain I prayed with dozens, maybe hundreds, of patients. Sometimes I felt I was doing a good job. Other times I felt I was completely inadequate.
One night I was the on-call chaplain and got a late call. A Roman Catholic family wanted a priest to come and perform what is commonly called last rites. Unfortunately, there was no Catholic priest in the hospital and little time because the patient needed emergency surgery. At first they didn’t want a Protestant chaplain, but fifteen minutes later they wanted anyone they could get.
I ran and got there just as they were about to roll the patient into the operating room. The family asked me to say a Hail Mary. They settled for holding her hand and saying The Lord’s Prayer. When we finished they wheeled her through the doors. She died in surgery.
The last words she heard on this earth were, “…and deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” And the next thing she heard was choirs of angels.
In May of 2007 all the hard work of seminary seemed to be paying off. I was finishing up my second CPE unit (hospital chaplain training) and applying for a residency program. I was in the process of being ordained by the United Methodist Church. We were close to reaching our family goal of having Leslie home taking care of the kids and me in the work place bringing home the money.
Then one Saturday morning, our family was working together to spruce up our yard. I was trimming some overgrown shrubbery. The next thing I knew I was looking at a field of brown and someone was asking me about my address and phone number. As my eyes cleared I realized that I was talking to paramedics. I wouldn’t have been able to answer their questions without Leslie’s help. But Leslie convinced the paramedics that she could take care of the transportation–because she wanted me to go to the hospital where she worked and where I was doing my training. We got into our car, and she drove to the emergency room.
Along the way I called my parents and the pastoral care office at the hospital. As we drove I started feeling worse and worse. I felt nauseous and had what epileptics and neurologists call auras, a combination of vibrations, sparkling lights and earthquakes inside my head. We couldn’t get to the hospital quick enough as far as I was concerned. When we pulled up I quickly opened the door, undid my seatbelt and put my feet on the pavement. I was too dizzy to stand up. Leslie ran to get someone with a wheel chair.
I remember being impatient and uncomfortable–then nothing until I woke up in a hospital bed with restraints on my forearms and ankles. As a chaplain I’d talked to many patients in restraints, but now I was the patient, and the feeling was definitely odd. One of the chaplains from the pastoral care office came in, and I could greet her by name, though most of that day I was disoriented. The powerful anti-epileptic drugs knocked me out of reality. Two grand mal seizures within an hour had completely exhausted my muscles, and I could barely move.
I remember one of the chaplain supervisors telling my mother that I’d gotten into the residency program, news I was eagerly anticipating, but I was too far gone to care.
That evening I had an MRI to see if my brain tumor had come back. I couldn’t experience anxiety and fear before the scan, nor feel the joy of relief after learning the answer was no.
I didn’t experience God that day, not personally. But that was because I couldn’t see the other side of my reality. But God showed up.
You could argue that He always shows up, and this is true. But we only become aware of His presence when we pray. If we have a seizure, or are drugged, or just plain too sick to care, we are unable to pray and unaware if the Lord is present or not. When we need Him most, we are unable to call His name.
I am very blessed. From the moment I called, my mother contacted our family and her prayer partners, and by the time the hospital staff extracted me from the car seizing and hauled me through the lobby to the ER, a hospital chaplain, a minister from our church, my parents and their five prayer partners were praying for me and Leslie.
They prayed for my family while they were traumatized from seeing me have a seizure. They prayed for my health, and that I wouldn’t have a recurrence of brain cancer. They prayed for God’s presence to be close to us during a hard and frightening time. And the prayers were answered. God comforted my family, He kept me from further harm, He gave us peace.
Now I try to prepare. Two prayer partners and I meet each week, praying for everything from help finding our lost sunglasses to the forgiveness of sins that seem unforgivable, and healing from illnesses that seem incurable. We know each other and each other’s business. My prayer partners see my blind side, the things I don’t know about myself.
When catastrophe strikes me again, these two people will pray for me. I feel good about it; they’ve already practiced.
Do you know who will pray for you when you can’t pray for yourself? Maybe it will be a minister or a priest or a hospital chaplain. Maybe a family member. But maybe you want someone who has practiced. And the best way to do that is start now. Find someone you trust with your blind side, and share your prayers.
The seminary taught me the joy of daily prayer and Bible study, and prepared me for a mystery.
For a good portion of the seminary experience I was in a covenant with one of the professors to read four chapters of the Bible and pray for ten minutes every day. In truth, I just about wore out the chairs in the prayer room. It became a very warm and welcoming place for me.
I learned to feel the often small but steady flow of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. I tried all sorts of prayers, but one of my favorites became blank prayer, the process of emptying my mind, my heart, and my spirit of all distractions and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come. I made sure that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were very specifically invited. This type of prayer is waiting and listening for God’s presence. The prayer room would go from being a dimly lit room to a raging waterfall of the Holy Spirit. In this way I prepared myself for unusual things to happen.
It was the spring of 2006, my last semester of seminary. God had blessed me with a stunningly beautiful wife and a six-month old son. They gave me great joy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the seminary experience and community. I was, however, taking five classes, caring for my son, and did not have enough time to do the work. Four hours of sleep each night was not enough. I was in over my head and often fought off sleep as I sat in class.
One morning in preaching class as I listened to one of my fellow students preach, the Holy Spirit came upon me. I started seeing clouds of fire above his head. It wasn’t a little cloud, but clouds that spread out all across the front of the classroom. There was tension and for some reason I remember praying to God, saying, “Strike Lord, Strike Lord.” In my mind I saw the fires coming down and touching the preacher. It wasn’t malicious or intended to harm him, but more to inaugurate something, something important. After the sermon I told him what I’d seen.
None of the other students had seen what I had. I know they talked about my vision, and wondered about me. Since then I have lost track of the speaker and I can’t say if the vision ever had significance to him or his ministry.
A couple weeks later I was listening to another student preach. My eyes were drawn to a cloth that was hanging from the podium. It had depictions of children from all over the world. The Spirit came upon me, and I started to see them move and even dance. When the sermon ended, the other students filed out for a break.
I sat still, trying to process what had just happened. One other student stayed behind, someone I’d known for the past four years. She was often more emotional than rational, a characteristic that had placed her on the fringe of the seminary community. She knew I had seen something and asked what it was. I told her, and we prayed together. Then the break was over, everyone came back in, and we never spoke of it again.
I have had no visions before or since, and I have no idea how they may be important to others. Some will think they were a product of my sleep deprivation or scar tissue from my tumor. But for me, they were important spiritual experiences. I learned visions are real, and I learned to value the emotional faithful friend who stay in the room with me more that the rational one who leaves.
Sometimes God does strange things, things that remain a mystery to us, things that may change us in ways we do not understand.
I was nineteen. I’d finished my first year of college and came home to find that my church was in turmoil, an old wineskin being filled with new wine.
The church I attended since I was six had always discouraged words like Holy Spirt, saved and born again. The church put a premium on making the congregation feel comfortable, not spiritually challenged.
From where I sit today, it seems like a travesty and an utter waste of God’s resources. But there is a place for such gateway churches, places where people can come and learn about God and the Bible before they receive the Holy Spirit. The trick is not to get so stuck in that spiritual comfort zone that we never get out.
The new minister challenged that spiritual comfort zone, using words like Holy Spirit, saved and born again. The agitated congregation pushed back with words like he doesn’t understand us, he doesn’t know who we are and we want him moved to a different church.
In the midst of this storm, the pastor’s wife took over running the youth group. As soon as she did so, all the high school youth and experienced youth counselors stopped showing up. She was left with a handful of middle schoolers.
During her first summer as youth director she decided to take the kids to a Bible Camp. It had been a blessing to her when she was teenager and she wanted the kids to have the same benefit. But she could only get one chaperon, a mother of one of the kids, and she felt that she needed a male chaperon as well. At nineteen I was barely qualified to chaperon a dog, and certainly not 7th graders, but I went anyway.
Take suburban youth from a marginally spiritual congregation and throw them into a charismatic Bible camp in rural Georgia and you get culture shock. I was certainly in culture shock. People were raising their hands, shouting amen and the charismatic pastors were very different than anyone I’d ever heard. I don’t know if previous years had been as intense, but during that week we were getting up at seven and going to bed after midnight.
I believed then, and still believe, that the vast majority of the counselors and staff were born-again Christians doing their very best to introduce the kids to Jesus Christ. But their keynote speaker, the man who preached twice a day and sometimes exceeded his scheduled time by more than two hours, struck me as wrong from the get-go. He was intense, unrelenting, and definitely violating my spiritual comfort zone.
At first I tried to dismiss my misgivings by reminding myself that it was just a difference in styles of our preaching and worship. By Tuesday I was uncomfortable enough that I wanted to pack up, take all of our kids and go home. I felt like something was pushing me to leave, to flee from danger. On Wednesday he started saying weird things like, “stop reading your Bibles, stop talking to your counselors and just focus on me and what I’m saying.”
I talked to our youth director immediately after the morning sermon and shared my discomfort. She listened to me and agreed that what he was saying was a little disturbing, but she dismissed my discomfort by saying that it was just a different culture of Christianity. There was no way that she could have taken our kids home early. If our church members heard even a whiff of a rumor that she took the kids to a camp where the preacher was “talking crazy,” her tenure as youth director would be over and her husband’s position as pastor would be threatened.
Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were epic struggles. I didn’t want to make a scene, but the Holy Spirit was pushing me harder and harder to leave. My level of discomfort was very intense.
Thursday night I got up and walked out of the sermon. The counselors, the grown-up ones from Georgia, were alarmed. They thought I was one of the youth; there was only a year’s difference between me and the oldest youth. They told me that I had to go back in. I said I wasn’t going to. They said I could either go back in immediately or go home immediately. I picked up the phone and called my mom in Florida. I was explaining that I needed the impossible, to be home that very night, when our youth director walked in, took the phone and told my mom that I was having trouble with the sermon, and that she would talk to me.
We went to the church van and started talking. Explaining the promptings of Holy Spirit seemed impossible. I talked about doctrine, words and feelings. I couldn’t explain how endangered I felt by that preacher. The youth director was unconvinced, and I felt that everything would keep going on as it was. I was only a chaperon, powerless to change anything.
Then another camp counselor came by, sobbing uncontrollably. The preacher had opened spiritual wounds from her childhood and made her feel like she didn’t belong in God’s kingdom. She joined us; we talked and prayed. What was unconvincing from me alone became very convincing when there were two of us. Our youth director, the sobbing counselor and I decided we needed to talk to the camp’s directors.
As can be expected, the directors were less than enthused to hear from us at midnight. They talked about how the preacher was “breaking new ground” in his church and how we owed them more than to just pack up and leave. In the end they insisted that we talk to the preacher face to face.
The pastor, his wife and the camp directors met with the three of us in a small room. The sobbing counselor talked about how the sermons made her feel and the sorrow they caused. Next, our youth director spoke about how she had the gift of discernment and how she was convinced that there was something wrong. The preacher never blinked through their comments.
Then it was me, the nineteen-year-old “chaperon.” The preacher stared at me with intense eyes. I returned his gaze as I spoke. I tried to defend myself from the inference that I was only upset because of the cultural gulf between charismatic rural Georgia and stuffy suburban Jacksonville.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s charismatic or not. What is important is that it is of God,” I said.
I was completely unprepared for what came next. The preacher kept his gaze on me and asked point blank, “Can you forgive me?”
A more seasoned Christian would have said Yes because we are quick to say we forgive. But I didn’t know, and still don’t know, what I was supposed to forgive.
I said, “I have nothing to forgive. It is a matter of trust. We need to trust that you are giving the message God sent you to deliver.”
We left, and I went to sleep uncertain if the preacher with the intense eyes had heard me or changed. I only know that I said the words the Holy Spirit had given me.
The next morning the preacher abandoned his theme of “Being Desperate for God.” He talked about God’s grace and love, and how blessed he was that God had given him his wife and her love. After that final sermon the preacher and his wife sought me out and thanked me–again for something I didn’t completely understand.
God did something there, something good, and he used me to do part of it. The Holy Spirit may call us in our distress, even while we feel powerless against the might, wisdom and conventions of our world. When I was powerless, the Holy Spirit filled another counselor with her pain and sent her to me at just the right moment. Together we could confirm and reinforce what the Holy Spirt had been telling us, and we could change our world.
Is there a time when the Holy Spirit filled you with distress, urged you to cry out, and you felt powerless?
Is there a time when you cried out, and He sent you a brother or sister to cry with you?
And when two or more of you are gathered together, maybe crying together, isn’t He with you, and can’t you change the world?